Jimmy Kimmel knows what it’s all about. Now that old skits have resurfaced of him wearing blackface to impersonate NBA player Karl Malone and other black celebrities, the talk-show host has issued the inevitable learning-and-listening apology.
But the line that sticks out is this: ‘It is frustrating that these thoughtless moments have become a weapon used by some to diminish my criticisms of social and other injustices’. This is why Kimmel will not lose his show or his sponsors, even with a recording of him rapping the N-word in 1996. He is reminding the mob that he is one of them, or at least can be of use. Don’t cancel me, bro.
Jimmy Fallon won’t be canceled either. He apologized for appearing in blackface as Chris Rock in a 2000 Saturday Night Live sketch. ‘I am very sorry for making this unquestionably offensive decision and thank all of you for holding me accountable,’ he tweeted, like a dissident gushing gratitude to his informer as he’s led away by the secret police.
Someone else who won’t be canceled is Tina Fey. Fey asked streaming services to remove episodes of 30 Rock, the series she starred in and co-produced, that featured another actress in what Fey delicately calls ‘race-changing makeup’. Fey, too, elevates prime-time skits to the realm of grand politics (‘As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America…’), and she joins in the intellectual dishonesty rampant at present: ‘I understand now that “intent” is not a free pass for white people to use these images.’
Now? 30 Rock ran on NBC from 2006 to 2013. It’s not like it was up against Al Jolson crooning ‘Maaaaaammy!’ on ABC or a 60 Minutes special from George Wallace’s Birmingham. The series aired during the tenure of the first black president and in a progressive and racially-conscious entertainment culture. Jokes about race and racism were common on the show itself.
Some other stars who haven’t been and won’t be canceled despite donning blackface: Jon Hamm, Zach Braff, and the biggest celebrity diva of all, Justin Trudeau. Funnily enough, all these figures have something in common: politics. Kimmel called for Donald Trump to be voted out of office, Fallon got into a Twitter spat with the President, and Fey criticized white women who voted for him. Hamm campaigned for Barack Obama, as did Braff. Despite growing competition from Jacinda, Woke Warrior Princess, Trudeau remains a pin-up for progressives.
Immunity from cancel culture is probably as much about star power, in-crowd status, the vagaries of the news agenda and plain old luck as it is about ideology but it’s hard to shake the nagging suspicion that ideology plays a part. Roseanne Barr’s revived sitcom was canceled in 2018 after she made an obnoxious comparison between Valerie Jarrett, the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet of the Apes. Barr’s comment was cruel and vulgar and her network and the wider public entitled to enforce corporate and community standards against it. TV cook Paula Deen’s series was dropped after she admitted to having used contemptible racial slurs in the past and, again, the Food Network had a right to protect its brand.
Yet, both women apologized, just as these prominent liberals have, except in their cases that was not enough. Might Barr have survived if she had posted her tweet back when she was on the left (and voicing opinions no less unhinged) rather than after her conversion to Trumpism? Might Deen still have her show if she hadn’t been a white Southerner, with all that symbolizes for the entertainment industry?
There is an absurdity to this sudden rush to apologize for and delete from existence content on the basis that it is now ‘problematic’. Most of the shows involved are products of the 2000s and 2010s. Times have not changed — the rules have. Nothing betrays what is happening like The Simpsons’ announcement that it will no longer allow white actors to voice non-white characters. Matt Groening’s series is not a mouthpiece of racist reaction; it was a knowing, ironic satire for a knowing, ironic audience. It could play on politically correct pieties about race and ethnicity because it existed in and embodied a time when America’s racial progress was recognized, celebrated and desired. A nation of immigrants could laugh at itself, including its lingering stereotypes, and a country that had driven the legacy of Jim Crow from its laws and customs could ironize both racism and white guilt in all their absurdities.
The cultural junta grabbing power today reserves its staunchest contempt not for the racial prejudices Nineties culture lampooned but for that easy, liberal culture itself — because it was easy, because it was liberal, because it functioned through the gentle prod of humor rather than the brute thump of coercion. Because, above all, it idealized a post-racial America and nothing threatens identity politics more.
Those who aim to rule over what we may say, write, create, think and even laugh at want to change everything while pretending that nothing is changing. To achieve this, they are memory-holing the culture of five minutes ago and its barrier-breaking and relaxed mores. What was transgressive is being revised as conservative. People who laughed at jokes now scold everyone else for doing the same.
These pretenses are important to progressivism. As it cultivates a culture of conformity, intolerance and fear, it must maintain its self-image as a motor of openness and self-expression. We go along with it because we would sooner believe we are becoming more enlightened than concede the encroachment of a deadeningly censorious regime. That regime says justice demands the arraignment and prosecution of the old regime, though mercy is available for jesters like Jimmy Kimmel and Tina Fey who are ready to repent and perform for the new court. All dictatorships have their double standards and moral dictatorships are no different.